Wednesday, November 10, 2004

He Was Human

He Was Human

Nov. 11 - Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, died early this morning in a Paris hospital, a French military spokesman announced.

Within hours of his death, Mahmoud Abbas, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was elected chairman of the group, succeeding Mr. Arafat. Mr. Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, is also expected to take over its largest movement, Fatah,

Under the rules of the Palestinian Authority, the speaker of the Parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, will serve as acting president until new elections are held for the post within the next 60 days.

In towns and refugee camps across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip today, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets, wailing in grief and shooting off volleys of gunfire.

No other individual so embodied the Palestinians' plight: their dispersal, their statelessness, their hunger for a return to a homeland lost to Israel. Mr. Arafat was once seen as a romantic hero and praised as a statesman, but his luster and reputation faded over time. A brilliant navigator of political currents in opposition, once in power he proved more tactician than strategist, and a leader who rejected crucial opportunities to achieve his declared goal.

At the end of his life, Mr. Arafat governed Palestinians from an almost three-year confinement by Israel to his Ramallah headquarters. While many Palestinians continued to revere him, others came to see him as undemocratic and his administration as corrupt, as they faced growing poverty, lawlessness and despair over prospects for statehood.

A co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994 for his agreement to work toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, Mr. Arafat began his long political career with high-profile acts of anti-Israel terrorism.

Mr. Arafat presided over an autonomous Palestinian sector that was, relative to most Arab states, tolerant and politically free-wheeling. And his popularity prevailed relative to challengers.

Ever the careful balancer, he insisted on making decisions alone and in private. Indeed, he found himself increasingly isolated in his final years, with almost all his former close aides having been killed over the years by Israeli or Arab assassins.

Plagued by a neurological illness that doctors said stemmed from an airplane crash in the Libyan desert that nearly killed him in 1992, Mr. Arafat slowed down. No longer able to work his legendary 18-hour days, he was forced to delegate some power, if not real authority, as he grew ever more frail. His trembling lower lip and shaking hands increased Palestinian concerns about the future. He had not appointed or groomed an obvious successor.

Some Americans and Israelis involved in the Oslo peace negotiations continued to view him as the only Palestinian leader willing and able to make the compromises needed to end the bitter conflict. They disagreed with the growing number of Israelis who suspected that he secretly sought Israel's destruction while negotiating for peace.

This upbeat assessment, however, was challenged in Israeli and American eyes by the collapse of the Oslo talks at Camp David in July 2000 and a last ditch round of negotiations that continued despite growing violence until January 2001.

Arafat never sold out his people for the momentary praise of America or anyone else.

In fact, he resisted almost unbearable pressure to accept a set of bantustans which would have killed a true Palestinian state.

Arafat, the Palestinian leader was unwilling to budge from his position that East Jerusalem must be the capital of the new Palestinian state.

According to officials involved in the negotiations, the prospects for an accord finally fell apart just after midnight Monday night, the second all-night session that President Clinton had led after returning to Camp David from Japan on Sunday evening.

On Sunday and Monday nights, Mr. Clinton worked with negotiators from both sides and progress was reported on the borders of a Palestinian state, on the fate of the three million Palestinian refugees scattered through the Middle East and on security arrangements.

The question of sovereignty over the holy sites in Jerusalem, home to major places of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims, was at the heart of the problem.

''Think of Jerusalem as four concentric circles. 'Outer suburbs, inner suburbs, the Old City and the religious sites. As you move into the center, the issues become more intense, historical, religious.'' There was surprising convergence on how different parts of the city would be managed but severe disagreement on the notion of sovereignty.

Impasse at Camp David: The Overview; Clinton Ends Deadlocked Peace Talks

Shops closed and verses of the Koran blared out from loudspeakers as hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps in Jordan mourned the death of Mr. Arafat today, Reuters reported.

Several thousand people marched in the crowded Bakaa Camp, whose inhabitants live in makeshift homes with corrugated iron roofs, the agency said, adding that Arafat loyalists carried a symbolic coffin draped with the Palestinian flag as hundreds of youths chanted anti-Israeli slogans and later burned the Jewish state's flag.

Some 1.8 million of the nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees scattered across Arab countries live in camps in Jordan. Many of Jordan's 5.3 million citizens are Palestinians whose families settled after successive Arab-Israeli wars, placing the kingdom at the heart of the conflict.

Jordan's royal court announced that flags would be lowered to half-staff for 40 days and that the country would mark three days of national mourning.

Similar demonstrations of mourning were mounted by Palestinian refugees in other Middle East countries, including Lebanon.

Arafat's Body on Way to Egypt as Palestinians Mourn Loss of Icon

con·cept: He Was Human